Forest Collaboration in Northeast Washington: Duane Vaagen
In this interview, Duane Vaagen, CEO of Vaagen Brothers, discusses how he came to support forest collaboration and its importance in overcoming litigation.
13 MINUTE READ
Timber industry people who don’t trust forest collaboration believe that those of us who participate in collaboratives are sleeping with the enemy. Environmentalists who would rather sue than participate in collaboratives think that environmentalists who collaborate with us are sleeping with the enemy. So it’s unanimous. We’re sleeping with our enemies. I don’t care what our critics think. Collaborative groups, ours included, are solving political problems that should never have become political problems, and those problems are the reason why our forests are dying and burning before our very eyes. So if you really want to know what collaboration is all about, it’s about protecting forests from the ravages of nature, not just for our benefit, but also for the benefit of future generations.
Duane Vaagen, Chief Executive Officer Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company, Colville, Washington
Duane Vaagen is a third generation Northeast Washington lumberman. Born in Colville in 1952, he and his sons, Russ and Kurtis, and his daughter, Emily, own Vaagen Brothers, a lumber company Mr. Vaagen’s grandfather started east of Colville, Washington in the 1930s. His father and uncle expanded the operation after World War II, then moved it to Colville in 1968. When he was 12 – and still too young to work in the mill - Mr. Vaagen bought a chainsaw so that he could thin trees on state and county land near his home. He was too young to drive, so his mother had to drive him to his work sites. Now 63, he has been running Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company for more than 30 years, and is widely considered to be one of the West’s most innovative lumbermen. In this interview, he discusses his pioneering support for forest collaboration in Northeast Washington.
Evergreen: Mr. Vaagen, your lumbermen peers were very surprised when you got behind the formation of a collaborative group here in Colville. Why did you do it?
Vaagen: We needed to find a way to get beyond litigation. Most of the timber sales that were being offered on the Colville National Forest were being appealed or litigated or both. So we decided to reach out to the environmental community to see if they were satisfied with the status quo. We quickly found that they weren’t and that we shared a common concern for the increasing risk of catastrophic fire in rapidly deteriorating timber stands on the Colville, which has many more trees than it can support.
Evergreen: So you wake up one morning and say to yourself, “It’s time to start a collaborative?”
Vaagen: It’s not quite that simple, and I certainly had my own doubts about what we might be able to accomplish, but the Forest Service is by far the largest timberland owner in Northeast Washington, so we had to find a new way of doing business with them. Collaboration was all new then and it seemed like a good avenue for starting a conversation with the folks who were shutting down every timber sale offered on the Colville, and all over the West.
Evergreen: So you pick up the phone and call who?
Vaagen: I’d read several newspaper articles written by a lawyer from Twisp, Washington named Jim Doran. Although he was a well-regarded environmentalist, his more conciliatory tone got my attention. One thing led to another and I ended up hiring Jim to help us quietly set up a collaborative in Colville.
Evergreen: Wow. You two must have found a lot to talk about.
Vaagen: We both did a lot of listening. I wanted to understand the hopes and goals of environmentalists who were suing the Forest Service, and Jim was fascinated by our saw mill, which is configured in a way that lets us to turn small diameter logs into an array of high value wood products. Many people equate small diameter with poor wood quality, but that isn’t true. In 70-90 years, the Colville grows tight-ringed lodgepole and interior Douglas-fir that is exceedingly strong.
Evergreen: Was Mr. Doran able to see potential?
Vaagen: Jim is a very quick study, sometimes too quick for his own good; but, yes, he soon realized that our mill was the solution, not the problem. The trees that need to be removed from overstocked stands on the Colville are ideally suited to our mill. Thinning is pretty much a non-starter if you don’t have a viable market for the logs. We have more than 40 years of experience in manufacturing and marketing small diameter logs.
Evergreen: So Mr. Doran was soon a true believer. Then what?
Vaagen: We reached out to Mike Petersen, who runs the Lands Council in Spokane. It did not take us long to figure out that we were both pretty unhappy with the Forest Service.
Evergreen: How so?
Vaagen: Well, for one thing, the Forest Service was playing us off against one another at a time when they should have been encouraging us to find ways to settle our differences of opinion about proposed projects on the forest. We decided the best way to handle the situation was to present a more united front, so we formed the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition and went to work.
Evergreen: When you say, “Went to work,” what does that mean?
Vaagen: We began responding jointly to Forest Service proposals, and we offered suggestions for expanding or improving projects they proposed.
Evergreen: How did the Forest Service respond?
Vaagen: Once they saw and understood the diverse makeup of our coalition, things began to improve.
Evergreen: How diverse?
Vaagen: When you have wilderness advocates, like Mike Petersen and Jim Doran, and a lumberman like Duane Vaagen singing from the same sheet music, it’s time for Congress and the Forest Service to sit up and take notice. But, to your question, our coalition also includes people who enjoy camping, hunting, fishing, hiking and just roaming around on the Colville. I think we mirror our community’s environmental and social values pretty well.
Evergreen: In our many interviews with collaborative groups, we find a bedrock determination to push harder on the Forest Service to develop more and much larger projects. Is this true of your group?
Vaagen: I’m not involved in the day to day activities associated with our collaborative, but yes, there is strong support for treating more acres. The Forest Service has mechanically thinned about 4,000 acres on the Colville in recent years, despite strong support from the coalition to treat between 15,000 and 20,000 aces annually.
Evergreen: Sounds expensive given per acre Forest Service treatment costs.
Vaagen: Actually, it would not cost taxpayers a dime.
Evergreen: Really, how so?
Vaagen: The key lies in the presence of a well-integrated wood processing industry. Within 25 miles of our saw mill, other companies produce paper, plywood and electric energy from wood. Between all of us, we can profitably manufacture an impressive array of products from wood.
It’s a very different than the northern Arizona situation, which I know well. The forest restoration work underway there is costing taxpayers north of $1,000 per acre – and that’s if you can get to it before it burns. It’s a lot more expensive to restore burned timberland, beginning with the fact that the Forest Service’s fire budget is now more than of $2 billion annually.
Evergreen: But you think the work would be done at no cost to taxpayers?
Vaagen: I do. About $750 per acre profit. But the Forest Service currently sends that money to Washington, D.C. It needs to stay here and be invested in more projects. It’s an easy fix for Congress if they’ll do it.
Evergreen: And it’s all small diameter timber?
Vaagen: Small, tight rings, 70-90-years old. We machine stress rate a lot of it for the truss manufacturing industry. There are several truss manufacturers within an hour or two of our mill.
Evergreen: Have you found the words to express the potential you’re trying to unlock on the Colville?
Vaagen: I tell people that every truckload of logs that arrives at our mill gate generates $2,000 within our community. On an average day, we’ll accept 100 loads, so that’s $200,000 a day that that stays in our town, not counting our mill wages or the taxes those wages generate. If you add up the numbers and use the multipliers economists use to determine economic impacts, it’s closer to $450,000 a day.
Evergreen: That stays in Colville?
Vaagen: Yes, and I think our forest collaborative deserves a lot of the credit for this. We haven’t had a project litigated in 10 years. One was appealed, but it was settled and the project went forward. That’s the power of collaboration.
Evergreen: Those engaged in collaboratives in northern Idaho tell the same story.
Vaagen: Collaboration begs a question that I’ve been asking for a long time. Why would you ask for a “No” when you can ask for a “Yes” and get it? Again, that’s the power that comes with bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders who work with one another long enough to learn to trust one another.
Evergreen: Your critics say collaborators lack the knowledge needed to know what’s needed in forests.
Vaagen: That’s certainly not been my experience. Most of our stakeholders, especially our conservationists, know quite a bit about forestry. What they have not understood is saw milling. But we’ve done lots of mill tours, so they now have a good grasp of what we are able to do with small logs.
Evergreen: How small is small?
Vaagen: We can make a wood product from a tree three inches in diameter on the small end. And since Avista – the largest public utility in eastern Washington and Northern Idaho - has a power plant just up the highway in Kettle Falls, we sell them our hog fuel and they turn it into electricity. We sell our better quality wood chips to the paper mills in our area.
Evergreen: So you have a variety of markets available.
Vaagen: That’s the power of infrastructure. Connect that to the power of collaboration and you can do great things for you community and your forests.
Evergreen: Vaagen Brothers is really the community’s saw mill, isn’t it?
Vaagen: I have made that very statement many times. We’re in the service business. Those who buy our wood products are our customers. People who live in Colville are our customers. Conservationists are our customers. Once you take a bite of the collaborative apple, you want more.
Evergreen: Talk to us about the collaborative process itself. People who aren’t engaged in it seem to have unilaterally decided it’s a bad idea.
Vaagen: Timber industry people who don’t trust forest collaboration believe that those of us who participate in collaboratives are sleeping with the enemy. Environmentalists who would rather sue than participate in collaboratives think that environmentalists who collaborate with us are sleeping with the enemy. So it’s unanimous. We’re sleeping with our enemies. I don’t care what our critics think. Collaborative groups, ours included, are solving political problems that should never have become political problems, and those problems are the reason why our forests are dying and burning before our very eyes. Collaboration is all about protecting forests from the ravages of nature, not just for our benefit, but also for the benefit of future generations.
Evergreen: By political problems, we presume you are referencing the Forest Service’s inability to address the insect and disease infestations that are pushing the West’s federally owned forests to the brink of ecological collapse?
Vaagen: Exactly. Ask yourself how this happened. Why didn’t we nip this problem in the bud 25 or 30 years ago when we first saw it coming? We didn’t because we could not even agree that there was a problem, and then when it became obvious that there was a problem, we could not agree on what to do about it. That’s where all the ‘leave it to nature’ stuff began.
Evergreen: And you obviously don’t believe the public should be leaving its forests in nature’s hands.
Vaagen: We have too much at risk. And it isn’t just timber. It’s the water we drink, fish and wildlife, the fresh mountain air we breathe, and all of the beauty that we enjoy without ever thinking about it.
Evergreen: What was the ‘ah hah’ moment?
Vaagen: I don’t think there was one. There was just a slow awakening to the fact that nature isn’t much interested in what society wants or needs. Big forest fires take away everything for long periods of time. And the cost of fighting a big forest fire far exceeds the cost of doing the thinning and stand tending work that is necessary to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire. Again, the power of collaboration.
Evergreen: Critics say that collaboration takes too long and isn’t covering enough acres fast enough?
Vaagen: I agree, but you have to walk before you can run. We can keep logging like this forever, just thinning the forest and making it healthier. The forests we thinned last year will need to be thinned again in a few years. It’s perpetual. The Forest Service doesn’t get that part yet, but other landowners do. They get their forest thinned and we stick $500 per acre in their pocket for the trees we remove. That’s a pretty good deal all around.
Evergreen: You reference the Forest Service. Are they getting better at collaboration?
Vaagen: A little bit. Our collaborative has a strong environmental influence, so that helps, but I sometimes feel as though we’re all pushing this big medicine ball uphill to the Forest Service, and at the very moment we reach the top of the hill, the Forest Service kicks the ball back downhill.
Evergreen: How so?
Vaagen: They move their people around too often. They’re strangers in town. They’re never here long enough to get to know us or our forest. We do a lot of educating, and about the time they begin to figure out what’s needed here, they get transferred somewhere else.
Evergreen: If you had the last 30 years of your life to do over, what might you have done differently that to engage the public before collaboration became a possibility?
Vaagen: The industry screwed up in the 1970s by not being more supportive of forest recreation. We should have been adopting rivers, lakes, trails and campgrounds. It would have been easy to get our employees engaged in doing maintenance and litter work because most everyone likes to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. We also should have added maybe $5 a thousand to the timber sales we bought and that money could have gone into forest recreation development and maintenance work.
Evergreen: That’s a very good idea. Could you still do it?
Vaagen: We could, but lumbermen aren’t very creative when it comes to things like this, which has always amazed me because, as a group, we’ve invested in some of the most advanced sawmilling technology on earth. We’re also generally very supportive of our own communities, but we struggle to find effective ways to communicate with the wider world. We’re just not good at it.
Evergreen: Well, you’ve certainly been willing to swim against the tide. You’re A-to-Z Project comes immediately to mind. Are you the first lumberman to actually hire and pay to have an environmental impact statement completed?
Vaagen: I don’t know if we are the first to pay for NEPA work the Forest Service needed, but we wanted to know how much it costs to complete an environmental impact statement, so we hired a third party firm to do it on the first third of a 54,000-acre Forest Service project called A-to-Z. It’s about 15 miles northeast of Colville, so pretty much at our back door.
Evergreen: Couldn’t the Forest Service tell you what it costs to complete an EIS?
Vaagen: The Forest Service’s accounting system is such a jumbled mess that it’s impossible to know what anything they do costs. They complain all the time about not having enough money or manpower to get all their work done. We see it in their inability to meet their approved timber targets.
Evergreen: Having now paid for an EIS, can you tell us what you learned?
Vaagen: We learned that you can complete a full-blown EIS in a lot less time than it takes the Forest Service to complete one in-house. I’m guessing we did it for less money, too. The root problem here isn’t incompetent people. The root problem is a lack of qualified NEPA teams, and the fact that the agency sends them out to fight forest fires every summer.
Evergreen: So it takes them twice as long to complete their NEPA work.
Vaagen: Or longer. NEPA teams are already in short supply. We don’t have enough of them for all of the work that needs to be done. They shouldn’t be out fighting forest fires. They should be here doing the NEPA work that needs to get done to reduce the risk of fire. We also need to streamline the NEPA process so the Forest Service can complete more projects faster and better.
Evergreen: So far as we know, you were the first lumberman in the nation to embrace forest collaboration. What’s the take home message?
Vaagen: The take home message is that collaboration is the solution to a lot of political problems that have prevented stakeholders from developing strong lines of communication and agreement. It is a very powerful tool, but that’s all it is – a tool among many tools Congress has given the Forest Service.
Where collaboration is needed, we should use it; and where it isn’t needed, we should not be wasting the time or energy of our collaborators. There’s lots for them to do – too much it seems – so we need to stay focused on identifying projects that require collaborative solutions, and we need to get as much work done as we possibly can in the shortest time frame. Our forests are dying. They are destined to burn in very destructive fires– sooner rather than later - if we don’t get to them before fire does.